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Fiesta City a player in war on viruses
San Antonio Security

San Antonio is Texas' tourism capital, and it's no wonder that many Texans tend to associate it with historic missions and Riverwalk cafés. But the city is forging a place of prominence in a very different industry: the business of computer security--the protection of computer and telecommunications networks from malicious electronic attacks.

Computer security, sometimes called "information assurance," has taken on new importance in a time of viruses capable of doing billion-dollar damage. San Antonio has been able to parlay its military presence and educational institutions into a rapidly growing business community.

Computer attacks
The more-or-less continuous assault of computer viruses and "worms" from the Internet is an irritation for millions of Americans, but it's far more serious for organizations that depend upon computer networks to function. Costs from virus attacks include foregone business as well as the staff hours needed to recover and repair systems. According to the Congressional Research Service, major virus attacks did $12.5 billion in such damage in 2003.

And the costs are mounting. In June, Business Week reported that the "Sasser" virus, which attacked millions of PCs in May 2004, cost businesses and other organizations $3.5 billion. The magazine also noted that the computer security industry has grown to a $27 billion business that expects 19 percent growth in revenues for 2004.

Many fear that future attacks could do more than financial damage. The computer industry and policymakers take threats of cyberterrorism seriously; attacks on computer networks might, for instance, interfere with 911 emergency response lines and air traffic control systems.

"With 9/11 and Iraq, the understanding of the need for information security has increased dramatically, although the need was always there," said Anne Thompson, director of enterprise services for the San Antonio Technology Accelerator Initiative (the SATAI Network), a technology-focused economic development initiative.

The Air Force connection
San Antonio owes its prominence in the computer security field to the presence of the U.S. Air Force's Air Intelligence Agency (AIA), headquartered at Lackland Air Force Base, said Dr. Greg White, director of the University of Texas at San Antonio's (UTSA's) Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security (CIAS).

"The San Antonio focus on information security started in 1985, when the Air Force decided to move its computer security office to San Antonio to concentrate all of its electronic security functions in one area," White said.

The Air Force's computer emergency response team and information warfare center are also in San Antonio.

"Lots of us have left the Air Force to go into private industry and academia but have remained in the San Antonio area," White said.

Local computer security companies founded by former Air Force personnel include SecureInfo, SecureLogix Corp. and Digital Defense.

Thompson estimates that there are more than 40 computer security companies in the San Antonio area, in addition to security efforts at other, more broadly focused information technology firms.

Serious security
CIAS is UTSA's effort to further leverage San Antonio's computer security strengths. Working closely with AIA and area private companies, CIAS is pursuing about 14 different projects in basic security research, White said.

"We received about $2 million in federal funding for the current year, and it looks like we may be on board for another $2 million next year," said White.

CIAS' efforts dovetail with a broader UTSA focus on computer security education.

"The university offers an information assurance bachelors degree and a minor at the undergraduate level, and an area of emphasis in security or information assurance at the master's and Ph.D. levels," said White. "In addition, we have courses in security being taught in a number of different departments. We've requested the establishment of a master's program in information assurance, but that is waiting on approval from the UT System."

Young recruits
CIAS also works to interest local students in the computer security field, said Assistant Director Natalie Granado.

"We want to push an awareness of what terrorism is and get the students to realize that there are different types of terrorism, like the possibility of cyberterrorism," Granado said. "We explain the cyber realm and show how terrorists could use cyber attacks. We show [kids] things they can do on computers to secure them from attacks and encourage them to consider education in IT (information technology) fields, to give them some neat ideas about things they might want to pursue."

A good bet
The Information Technology and Security Academy (ITSA) is a work force development program co-sponsored by San Antonio's city government and school districts. It includes private employers, CIAS, SATAI and the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and is hosted by the Alamo Community College District. ITSA offers two years of course work in IT and security to selected high school juniors.

"ITSA is set up [to] encourage students looking at IT and computer security to go on to college," said Granado. "Students do course work specifically geared to these topics, in classes held for two hours on each day of the week. Over two years, they can receive up to 30 hours of dual high school and college credit with our community college here."

Because ITSA is a work force development program, the credits are considered technical rather than academic, but most universities accept them for a bachelor of applied science degree.

The academy offers eight-week summer internships for students who have completed one year of course work, Granado said.

"The students actually go to work for companies in the IT and security fields," she said. "And a lot of them come to UTSA to work in our [CIAS] research program."

The first class graduated in 2003 and interest in the program is rising, Granado said.

"Last year we accepted about 41 students, and out of the first graduating class, 100 percent went on to college, which is excellent," she said. "This year we have 65 applicants for the program."

Bruce Wright